Hue: An Imperial City (with incredible food)

Read more about my Self Care Sabbatical and the other places I’ve visited! 

I arrived in Hue in the middle of a rainstorm. Though I had left a sunny Hanoi morning, I had found the rain again. Despite this, I decided to walk the 20 minutes from where the airport shuttle dropped me off to my guesthouse. I preferred to walk with all of my stuff than get on a motorbike and ride through the rain. That didn’t stop at least half a dozen motorbikes from stopping near me to ask if I needed a ride.

The motorbike drivers in Hue would turn out to be one of my least favorite things about Vietnam. They were relentless. They were everywhere. They would NOT take No for an answer.

“Excuse me, lady, where are you from?”

“How long are you in Vietnam?”

“Where are you going after Hue?”

“Hoi An? I can give you a ride on the Hai Van pass. Beautiful ride. Most beautiful. Top Gear drive.”

“What are you doing in Hue? Want to see temples? I show you the tombs and temples, very good driver. Very good price”

I would walk 20 meters and get this spiel from another driver all over again. After the first couple of times, I quickly learned not to answer even the first question. Instead, I just looked up and said “Nope” and continued walking. I embraced my inner Rude New Yorker because I could not spend 3 days in Hue having this conversation over and over again.

3 days in Hue was absolutely too much. I regretted having booked that much time immediately after I arrived. Though the rain would clear after the first day, I still had way too much time in this town which used to be the capital of Vietnam. There is quite a lot of history to see here, but it’s condensed enough that you can easily see it in a day or two. And the main area where most of the hostels and guesthouses are is very touristy – full of big bars and overpriced tourist restaurants.

I didn’t start to enjoy Hue until I got out of this tourist zone, not just to see the imperial tombs and city, but also to see some of the more local parts of town and indulge in the local food specialties. Suddenly it felt like I was in a whole new city! So if you have your own motorbike, definitely go out and explore the areas around Hue. If not, make sure you find a tour or at least get yourself on foot to the areas around the Imperial City that feel a bit more like local spots.

What to Do:

As I mentioned, there are tons of guys on motorbikes willing to take you around to the main attractions. I wish I had done a bit more research before I signed on to do this…I could have definitely found a cheaper option with another driver through my hostel (and one who was less pushy trying to upsell me the whole afternoon on why I should have him drive me to Hoi An). However, it’s a nice way to see a bunch of the sights if you are short on time or don’t want to rent your own bike (or do a bus tour). The bike tour cost me 400,000 VND and it is definitely possible to find them for less than 300,000 VND. You will likely stop at about 5-6 places, including some of the Vietnam War sites around town.

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Forced into these touristy photos

Imperial Citadel – If you have limited time in Hue, I’d suggest visiting the Citadel. It’s quite impressive and worth spending a few hours walking around (though try to avoid going at midday when it’s hot and crowded). I loved wandering off and getting lost among the ruins of the old palace buildings. Like the tombs, there is incredible tilework throughout the Citadel and I couldn’t get enough of it. The citadel costs 150K VND to enter.

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Thien Mu Pagoda – The first stop on my motorbike tour. It’s quite beautiful to visit and just on the edge of the river.

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Imperial Tombs – There are many tombs located in Hue and I don’t think it would be worth visiting too many of them as they all start to look alike. But if you can visit a few of them while you are in Hue, I would suggest Minh Mang, Tu Doc, and Khai Din. I visited Tu Doc which I found incredibly beautiful. For more on the tombs, check out this TripSavvy article.

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Each of the tombs has a different entry fee (the other reason you won’t want to visit all of them) and some are more popular than others. I loved seeing these impressive buildings and the beautiful tile work all around the tombs. The landscapes around the tombs are also quite beautiful (even in the rain).

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There are other sites in and around Hue, best reached via motorbike, such as the covered bridge and the abandoned waterpark.

Eating all of the Central Vietnamese food:

I took a food tour in Hue which ended up being one of the best decisions I could have made. First, it was a good way to spend an afternoon since I had a lot of time in this city. Second, I was able to learn a lot more about Central Vietnamese food and explore parts of Hue that I never would have seen on my own. I ended up going back to 3 of the places from the tour on my own the next day. I did my tour through VM Travel (The Taste of Hue Walking Tour) and I wound up having a private tour with just me and a guide for the afternoon. She picked me up on her Vespa and we drove around to try local specialties at all of her favorite spots. Although we were supposed to walk, the Vespa made it possible for us to visit some places that were further away (which was awesome). I have never eaten so much on a tour! I was so full! Everything was incredibly delicious, though there was a lot of food for just myself (and my guide had some of the food).

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Local Dishes to try (and where to go) –

One thing you will notice is that there are a lot of herbs served with your dishes. If you are coming from the North, this will be a bit new. If you are coming from the South, you will be used to this. The generous plates of herbs and greens was probably my favorite part of Central and Southern Vietnamese cuisine.

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Bun Bo

Bun Bo (you will see this throughout Vietnam as Bun Bo Hue) – This is a beef-based rice noodle soup which is quite popular in Hue. I enjoyed it, even though the soups were usually not my favorite dishes, and I was surprised to find that I didn’t even mind the block of congeleaed pig blood in the soup! Alongside these blocks you will find beef/pork shank and knuckles. I went to small little local spot on my tour that was incredibly good – Bun Bo Hue O Phung.

 

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Bún Thit Nuóng – From the moment I tried this dish, I was in love. It became one of my top 3 dishes in Vietnam (close behind bun cha). This dish is served with noodles, bbq pork, peanuts, and herbs. What’s not to like? We stopped at a small local spot during the food tour which had the dish for just 25K dong. I made sure to come back on my own the next day! If you want to come by, visit the BTN restaurant on Dao Duy Tu, on the side of the river near the Citadel.

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Bánh Khoái (Bánh Xeo in the south) – Don’t call it a taco and don’t try to eat it like one! In Hue, this dish comes with crunchy rolls (much like crispy taco shells or a crepe) and are typically filled with shrimp and pork. They come with herbs and crunchy veggies, as well as a sauce that you can put into the filling. I found it incredibly difficult to eat these without making a mess, but quite delicious anyway! Try these at Bánh Khoái Hông Mai.

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Bánh Beo – These are little round cakes topped with shrimp and pork cracklings and are a great dish for sharing. Try these at Hanh.

Bánh Loc and Bánh Nam – These rolls, made from tapioca-based flour, are served with fillings of shrimp and pork. They come wrapped in banana leaves and are best topped with the fish sauce mix that comes alongside the cakes. Try them at Hanh Restaurant.

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Nem Lui – Skewers of pork and beef, these are grilled up and served alongside herbs, tons of greens, and rice paper. This is a bit of a DIY dish – roll up the meat inside the rice paper and stuff some herbs and greens in there as well. Dip into the sauce and enjoy. Try these at Hanh or at the BTN restaurant mentioned above.

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che is very different in Hue than in Hanoi

Chè – I first fell for this sweet “soup” in Hanoi and quickly came to learn that the different regions of Vietnam make it a bit differently. I loved trying it everywhere I went! In Hue, stop at Chè Hem which serves chè over ice. I came here twice and it was always buzzing with people. To choose your flavors, just walk up to the counter, point to a few things, and voila!

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Vietnamese Coffee – Cà Phê Muô’i is an awesome cafe near the Citadel. This place serves great coffee and it a nice little respite from the noisy streets. Grab a table outside and enjoy.

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For cheap local food near tourist area check out Quan Chay Thanh Lieu for tasty vegetarian food. Hanh Restaurant is also quite good and popular with both locals and tourists (be prepared for crowds!). 

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There are plenty of places to get western food in the tourist zone so if you are craving non-Vietnamese food, you will find it here. Check out Shiva-Shakti for some generous helpings of Indian food! Otherwise, I’d skip the places in this part of town and opt for something a bit more authentic (and cheaper). 

Getting There: Hue is in Central Vietnam and reachable via plane, bus, or train. I opted to fly from Hanoi because it was just 1 hour and flights were reasonably priced. The bus and train take about 13 hours and I really was not interested in doing that long of a trip. It will be much cheaper, however, than flying. If you do fly, there is an airport shuttle that takes you into town and is quite cheap (50,000 VND). The airport is quite far from town so your best option is the shuttle which will be much cheaper than a taxi. Once you arrive in town, you can walk or take a taxi to your accommodation. If you are coming from Hoi An, you can take a bus, train, or a motorbike to Hue. I highly recommend the motorbike (you can have the driver take you and your bags so you can just enjoy the ride on the Hai Van Pass). It’s a far more interesting ride than taking a bus or train. This also works for traveling to Hoi An from Hue (more on that in a future post!). 

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view of the Perfume River

Where to Stay: Most of the hotels and hostels are located in the touristy city center. This area is full of tourist trap restaurants and bars, tour agencies, and souvenir shops. I was really disappointed when I arrived because it was not quite what I was expecting. However, venture just outside of this area and you will find some cool parts of town and some good food. I stayed at New Life Homestay which offered private rooms and dorm rooms, was a great little spot just off one of the main roads and close to many of the bars and restaurants.

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2 Comments

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  1. It’s great that, even though things started out poorly, you turned it around. I, too, would be driven nuts by all those people hounding you for a tour guide. Interesting post!

    Liked by 1 person

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